Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Nuclear Accident Strikes Close to Home

Three Mile Island
Until recently I did not realize that San Onofre and Diablo Canyon are designed to withstand even less seismic stress than the designs of the Japanese nuclear plants.  I see the situation at San Onofre and Diablo Canyon as especially dangerous because we know that a major seismic event is due along these fault lines and could strike either of these facilities at any time.  San Onofre, situated adjacent the beach at Camp Pendleton, would appear vulnerable to tsunamis as well as earthquake.  (I am not aware of the tsunami vulnerability of Diablo Canyon).  In any case I agree that the tragedy in Japan should be a wake-up call at least for us in California and that ordinary prudence requires an immediate and thorough review of these two facilities for earthquake and tsunami vulnerability.  Either site would appear to be a disaster waiting to happen.

The events in Japan and the implications for nuclear power in the U.S. strike especially close to home for me, inasmuch as my father (now deceased) was intimately involved with the nuclear power industry from its inception. 
From 1954 until 1959, then a Naval officer, he served as the Atomic Energy Commission’s on-site representative at the construction of the world’s first nuclear power plant at Shippingport, PA.  His immediate supervisor during that period was Admiral Rickover, then regarded as the Government’s premier expert on nuclear power.  When Shippingport began supplying electricity to the City of Pittsburgh in 1959, those “in the know” predicted that nuclear technology would revolutionize both the financial and environmental costs of electrical power production across the nation and beyond. 

Twenty years later when TMI failed, Pres. Carter asked his former Naval superior, Admiral Rickover, to investigate the accident and report to the NRC with recommendations.  Rickover tasked my father and two others from his original nuclear team to perform this investigation and compose the report for the NRC.  After this experience, my father served for several more years as a board member and consultant of GPU, the utility which owns TMI, and also as a consultant for other nuclear power utilities.

From this history you will understand that I was raised from an early age with a faith in nuclear power.  Of course with others I have questioned this faith over the years, especially after Chernobyl and TMI.  This latest tragedy, however, leads me to conclude that the risks of nuclear power simply outweigh the benefits, real as those benefits are.  Prior to this tragedy in Japan, we have been right to worry that terrorists would (1) attack and damage a nuclear plant with potentially disastrous consequences, or (2) steal nuclear waste materials for bomb-making purposes.  We also have been right to worry that electrical power production in its present forms is inconsistent with a sustainable living environment over the long term.  To these risks we now must add the likelihood of catastrophic damage to nuclear plants located within seismic zones such as the California coast. 

I suggest that we learn from the Japanese experience and forthrightly consider whether to dismantle San Onofre and Diablo Canyon while we are able to do so safely.  Then in my view we should re-examine the broader implications of our electricity-dependent culture and consider, not whether, but how soon renewable energy sources, heightened efficiency, reduced energy consumption overall, and acceptance of some attending inconveniences should move from the “nice ideas” stage to practical policy.  Perhaps we need to negotiate the American way of life after all.

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